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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 2: Would or Should?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.


In the second question of our Real Grammar quiz, we asked whether it is better to use would or should when the subject is “I” or “We”. The choice was between

I would like to go to the concert and I should like to go to the concert.

Our conclusion was that – although both sentences are perfectly acceptable – I would like is the preferred option. Should was once common in sentences like this, but it is rarely used nowadays.

There is an old prescriptive rule which says that will and would go with second and third person subjects (you, he, she, it, and they), but when the subject is I or We, you are supposed to use shall or should. According to William Strunk, whose Elements of Style remains influential in the U.S.,

A conditional statement in the first person requires should, not would [as in] I should not have succeeded without his help.

In its entry for shall, the OED notes that:

Since the middle of the 17th c. the general rule (subject to various exceptions) has been that mere futurity is expressed in the first person by shall, in the second and third by will.

The rule is observed by T.S. Eliot in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

That was written in 1920. But half a century later, in their Grammar of Contemporary English (Longman 1972), Quirk et al. are more equivocal. Commenting on the use of will and shall when making predictions about the future, they say:

Prescriptive usage has exerted considerable influence in the direction of using shall [in 1st person constructions] (p87)

An interesting case of a prescriptive rule being explained descriptively! The authors simply refer to the prescriptivist case, but without suggesting that they agree with it.

Now let’s have a look at the evidence. Analyzing our most recent corpus data, we find just over 5000 instances of I should like and We should like, but that compares with over 275,000 cases of I would like and We would like – making the version with would over 50 times more frequent. (Of course, should has several other uses – such as expressing obligation – where its use with I or we is natural and appropriate: It’s getting late, and we really should leave.)

In the case of will and shall, the picture is a little less clear-cut: I will, immediately followed by an infinitive, appears about 1.4 million times in our most recent corpus, as against 100,000 or so instances of I shall in the same construction: will is clearly the preferred choice, but not by such a huge margin. This is partly accounted for by the relatively frequent use of I shall and We shall in academic writing:

In evaluating Nagel’s claim, I shall begin by discussing the hemispheric duality of the human brain.
In the next chapter, we shall see whether insubordination in science was encouraged by insubordination in religion.

Indeed, in the British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE), the I shall construction is over twice as frequent as in our general-purpose corpus, so it can be seen as a convention of this particular genre.

In the Real Grammar quiz, however, the context of the question was a conversation, and in situations like this, expressions like I shall go or I should like to go sound formal and old-fashioned. But in most conversations, the question doesn’t even arise, because we are more likely use contractions: I would like to go is certainly more natural than I should like to go – but in contexts like this, a simple I’d like to go is the most natural choice of all.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the third video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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